Walid Hawana, principal of the Annur Islamic School, traces his finger across some of the routes he has taken across America. He has visited 48 states — he’s yet to hit Alaska or Hawaii — and roughly two dozen countries, although he doesn’t have an exact count.
His office at the only Islamic school in the Capital Region, just a few hundred yards over the Niskayuna border off Central Avenue in Colonie, features knickknacks and trophies from Thailand and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Iowa and Texas and other points on the globe. He is most proud of the pictures of his 17 grandchildren, the offspring of his five kids scattered across three states.
The well-traveled educator, a native of Lebanon who was schooled in the states and taught at the college level, came to Annur from Texas in 2009 after weighing competing job offers here and in Aurora, Colorado.
“I visited both schools,” the 65-year-old said. “I found this school needed me more.”
It’s been a long road for this religious school, which has been short on resources but is finally growing. Annur (which translates to “The Light,” a name for Allah) opened in a former public school building in 1991, but closed less than two years later. It reopened in 1997 with pre-K and kindergarten classes, and eventually offered grade-school education.
Hawana said the school, housed in a 1923 building, was limping along when he arrived. Today it has 140 students from five Capital Region counties, primarily Schenectady. It was recently accredited by an outside agency in addition to New York state, and is in its second year teaching high-schoolers. Next year will see its first high school class earn diplomas: Two students, because of high grades and additional classes, will graduate a year early. In a few years school officials hope to tear down an aging second structure on the property and build a new school. Class sizes range from 18 in the lowest grades to less than a handful for the upperclasses.
On Monday, the 10th-grade Algebra II teacher was out giving his doctoral presentation. The class was instead led by an advanced ninth-grader, Naim Wali. The 14-year-old leaves his house in Hudson in Columbia County at 6:30 a.m. every morning, carpooling with another student to get to school for the 7:55 a.m. daily assembly. The class was composed of two students who, thanks to taking extra course work, will constitute the first high school graduates of Annur in 2016.
For one of them, 16-year-old Mellad Nasiri of Clifton Park, the difference between Islamic and public school is stark. He attended Shenendehowa High School for a year before transferring to Annur this fall.
“It’s a lot more homework. I wasn’t getting homework on Fridays at Shen,” he said. “I get a religious sense of it here, too,”
The students have a full academic workload, as well as an a hour each of daily instruction in Arabic, Islamic study and the Quran. Academic homework makes up for the class hours devoted to religious study.
“There is no mercy,” Hawana said with a smile.
There are also no proms.
“No dating whatsover,” Hawana said. “And be careful commenting on the Internet and social media.”
He said he expelled one student two years ago for repeated use of bad language.
But Hawana said the reinforcement of religious values goes hand-in-hand with embracing American values. He describes it as “Islamic character and American citizenship molded together.”
“We always reinforce [students] are part of this society — they are Americans — but stay away from the bad habits,” Hawana said. “Copy the good habits: Be industrious, honest, sincere. Persevere.”
For Lauren Slingerland, 22, of Burnt Hills, Annur Islamic School is a much different experience from the public schools she student-taught at while at LeMoyne College in Syracuse. But the first-year teacher has learned kindergartners don’t change, regardless of the environment.
“Kids are kids,” she said. “They are all the same. Five-year-olds are funny, creative and smart.”
There is a dress code (hijab and skirts for girls; school shirts and khakis for boys). Tuition is $4,400 to $5,000 a year. The principal said about 30 percent of students receive some sort of financial aid. If there is one social issue school officials have to guard against, Hawana said, it’s “kids who show off,” since the student body comes from a variety of social strata and backgrounds.
Still, the school is Spartan. Some classrooms are converted trailers attached to the main building. The cafeteria also serves as a low-ceiling gym and assembly hall, where the entire school meets for morning gatherings and noon prayers in addition to lunch. A room was recently converted into a modest library/media center. Some of the desks and chairs are 1970s vintage. In addition to principal, Hawana serves as security guard and janitor, among other duties.
“Public schools have all the resources,” the principal said. “We don’t, but we try.”
What the school does have is land, on which sits an old school building facing Central Avenue. Hawana envisions that building being torn down to make way for a new school, modest but with more navigable hallways, an indoor play area and gym, and hard-wired to provide a 21st century education. All it would take, Hawana said, is $4 million to $6 million and five or so years of fundraising. By then the high school ranks would be built up. Perhaps Annur would have interscholastic sports teams by then, the principal added.
Hawana said he has no plans on retiring and would like to see that vision of a new school realized.
“If you retire, you die quicker,” he said. “You have to remain active to the last minute of your life.”
School Board President Mohamed K. Osman is confident a new school could be built and running in five years. He said initial plans call for a portion of the property facing Central Avenue to be subdivided for commercial use, bringing additional funds to the project.
“I believe in five years you will be coming into a beautiful new building,” he said. “I believe the community can do it.”
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